Violinist Jennifer Koh turns physicist for ‘Einstein on the Beach’

Jennifer Koh, violin soloist in her "Bach and Beyond Part II" recital at Hahn Hall, Music Academy of the West, in Montecito on April 24, 2013.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Before each performance of the five-hour “Einstein on the Beach,” violinist Jennifer Koh must endure at least one hour in the makeup chair to transform her from a thirtysomething woman to the gray, wizened Nobel Prize-winning physicist — a head-to-toe metamorphosis that would impress even some of Hollywood’s most gifted prosthetic wizards.

The total physical makeover — young to old, female to male, Asian to Caucasian — isn’t always a pleasant experience for the violinist, who said that the costume, fright wig and layers of makeup can make playing uncomfortable.

But Koh pointed out that the cumbersome get-up isn’t the hardest part of the job. “The most terrifying part for me was that I had never acted before,” she said in in Los Angeles over a vegetarian lunch.


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“I didn’t even know what stage right was,” Koh said, referring to the common stage direction.

The role of Einstein in the 1976 stage piece by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson and Lucinda Childs — which will be performed for the first time in L.A. starting Oct. 11 — provides a rare opportunity for a solo violinist to play a character on stage while also playing the instrument.

It also represents the first time in the piece’s history that a woman has played Albert Einstein.

Koh, who hails from suburban Chicago and now lives in New York, said performing the epic work on stage has made her hyper-aware of her body. She also said that the male role has had a noticeable impact on the way she dresses in her personal life.

“I used to wear pants a lot. But ever since I started playing ‘Einstein,’ it’s been skirts or dresses all the time,” she said, explaining that dressing as a man for so long made her want to embrace her feminine side.

Koh noted that the character of Einstein in “Einstein” isn’t quite Einstein. As conceived by the production’s creators, the character is a musical distillation of the famous physicist — a totemic presence more than a flesh-and-blood character.

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In her solo career, Koh has lately been concentrating on works by J.S. Bach and will be re-teaming with “Einstein” director Wilson for a staged production of Bach’s Sonatas, which is expected to be performed in Paris.

“Jennifer has a very deep and interior sense of music,” said Wilson on the phone from Berlin. “I’ve never heard Phil’s music this way. She can do Bach and Philip Glass.”

Wilson said that the role of Einstein is unique in that it asks a musician to act and move in a dramatic way.

“Western musicians sit like they’re waiting for a bus,” he said. “Jennifer walked in, sat down and picked up the bow — there was already something very special about what was happening.”

For “Einstein,” Koh estimates that she is on stage for an hour. She plays with the help of sheet music and interacts with dancers and other performers.

Koh auditioned for the Einstein part for the current tour, which began its run in 2012 in Ann Arbor, Mich. The violinist said she hasn’t been able to play all of the tour’s cities, because she has to coordinate the production with her own solo engagements.

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Wilson and Glass were looking to cast the best violinist for the role, regardless of gender, according to a spokesman for the production. Koh and violinist Antoine Silverman, a man, alternate the role on tour, though in L.A. only Koh will perform the role, he said.

When she isn’t on the road, Koh can be found in the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northwest corner of the island of Manhattan. The neighborhood — not quite gentrified but not as working-class as it used to be — was attractive to Koh and her husband, pianist Benjamin Hochman, because it was affordable.

“The expenses that a soloist has are unbelievable,” she said.

But Koh said she wouldn’t have chosen any other profession. She grew up in a middle-class household in Glen Ellyn, Ill.; her father was in the cleaning business, and her mother taught at Dominican University. (Both parents were born in Korea.)

She began playing at age 3 and started winning competitions as an adolescent. Despite her early success, she majored in English at Oberlin College, not music, because she wanted a well-rounded education. She later devoted herself full time to the violin at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

Koh, who performs in L.A. on a fairly regular basis, was last seen here in August at the Hollywood Bowl, where she played Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Even for someone with a broad repertory, “Einstein” represents a radical change of pace for Koh. “It’s really changed my concept of time. It has moments of forward motion and then moments of tremendous stillness,” she said.

Despite her intense physical dedication to portraying Einstein, she stops short in one respect.

“No, I don’t put a sock in my crotch,” she said. “But the pants are very baggy, so that helps.”